How to Protect Disability Rights in 2018

Disability rights have always been an important political issue in the United States, but in 2017, the growing profile of activist group ADAPT highlighted what’s at stake. The fight for health care is only a small part of the larger battle for full inclusion in society — something that will be under threat in 2018, thanks to Republican policies.

If you’re disabled and feeling helpless — or nondisabled and wanting to work in solidarity with the disability community — there are lots of actions you can take that will make a big difference.

On the Federal Level

Many disabled people are extremely concerned about threats to Medicaid, which will likely be targeted for significant cuts in 2018 — in part to pay for the GOP tax bill. Medicaid provides key health services to millions of disabled and/or low-income Americans. Consider contacting your legislators to let them know you support Medicaid funding and don’t want to see the venerable program converted to block grants or subjected to extreme cuts.

Two other pieces of federal legislation should also be on your radar: The Disability Integration Act and the ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017.

The Disability Integration Act explicitly affirms the right of disabled people to live in their communities — something vital for civil rights and full inclusion, but also incidentally less expensive than institutionalization. Make sure your legislators support it.

The ADA Education and Reform Act would introduce significant barriers that will make it harder to file ADA-related lawsuits. Proponents claim this will resolve the problem of nuisance lawsuits, but they neglect to mention that lawsuits are the only way to force businesses to comply with the ADA — a law that has been in effect for 27 years. It will be harder for disabled people to access their communities if this law passes, so make sure your legislators oppose it.

You may also want to consider looming policy changes to the education system, which tend to hit disabled students first. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has made it clear that she doesn’t think disabled students are entitled to an education, and she’s trying to dismantle key legal protections that keep disabled kids thriving in school. Equity and fairness in housing, employment and other aspects of life are also under threat on the federal level.

It can be overwhelming to keep track of every single legislative change, so consider picking a single issue and sticking with it. Maybe for you that’s fair housing, or health access for disabled children. Band together with friends to cover different issues; that way, you can call in support when you need it!

On the State Level

Republicans, once fond of citing “states’ rights” as a doctrine, are changing their colors on this issue — especially for blue states. Even so, states have a tremendous amount of power when it comes to passing civil rights legislation, prioritizing health care spending, extending anti-discrimination protections and more. It’s time to lean on state lawmakers. If the federal government won’t protect the disability community, make sure your state does.

You can push for greater guidance and enforcement on civil rights issues like voting rights, education access and employment discrimination. If you’re not sure what’s happening in your state or how to help, reach out to advocacy groups. Consider that disability rights almost always overlaps with other civil rights issues.

For example, voter ID laws disproportionately affect the disability community — and that’s a great reason to oppose them and support political candidates who believe in unrestricted voting rights. This also helps communities of color, who are similarly harmed by such laws.

On the Local Level

Your local government makes a lot of decisions that have a profound effect on disability rights. For example, new construction should be ADA-compliant, so showing up at planning commission meetings to voice concerns can improve accessibility in your community. The same goes for a variety of other civic activities and projects, from retrofitting sidewalks to holding community events in accessible venues. Your proactive measures will make your community more accessible and welcoming over time.

On a Personal Level

You can also speak out individually. If you visit a business that clearly lacks a ramp or poses other accessibility barriers, ask them why they haven’t addressed the problem, and encourage them to look into it. It’s often much cheaper to implement accessibility fixes than people expect. And depending on where you are, grants may be available to help — especially in the case of small businesses.

Planning or attending an event? Make sure the venue is accessible, and if it’s not, ask why organizers made that choice. Likewise, if you see a job or employment listing that implies — or states — that disabled people shouldn’t apply, speak up: That’s illegal!

If you’re nondisabled, this is a good time to practice advocacy with friends and colleagues, too. Lots of people make cruel, ignorant and uninformed comments about disability when they think it’s safe to do so. Make it clear that it’s never safe to do so around you — if something sounds offensive, call it out.

Along the way, educate yourself so you can educate others.

For example, if someone claims ADA nuisance lawsuits are a huge problem that harms small businesses, fire back: It’s actually just a few bad actors filing blanket claims who should be disciplined by state bars!

Or maybe someone says a person doesn’t “look disabled.” Note that 20 percent of the population is disabled, and disability is incredibly diverse. Some people have mobility impairments or other visible disabilities, but others are invisibly disabled: A person with cancer, chronic illness or another issue might “look” fine, but actually very much need accommodations like priority seating on transit.